(For related story, click on [nCOL285917]
By C. Bryson Hull
COLOMBO, Jan 28 (Reuters) — Hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans are trapped in a war zone that is now roughly 300 square km (115 sq miles) and the scene of heavy fighting between the Tamil Tiger rebels and a Sri Lankan army smelling victory.
Here are questions and answers about their situation.
The United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross say that around 250,000 people, nearly all Tamils, are trapped in the fighting. The government says that figure is too high. The Tigers have not given a tally but on Tuesday, the pro-rebel web site www.TamilNet.com said 300,000 people now face hunger.
The ICRC, the only aid agency with a permanent presence in the war zone, say hundreds have been killed and injured, but has not given an exact figure. The government tacitly acknowledged casualties on Wednesday, but says it has no official number and says figures reported so far are inflated. TamilNet says more than 300 have been killed and 1,000 wounded.
Human Rights Watch and the Sri Lankan government say the Tigers have forced people to stay at gunpoint, and are using them to fight, build defences or act as a human shield. The Tigers, who for years have had a policy of making every family hand one person over to fight, deny that. They say the people are staying of their own free will and fear government persecution at army-guarded refugee camps. A few thousand people have navigated the jungles, filled with booby traps and mines, to reach army-controlled areas.
The Sri Lankan army says it has set up a 32-square-km, no-fire zone in the middle of the battle area, and dropped leaflets urging people to go there. The LTTE says the military is firing into the safety zone indiscriminately. The Tigers have not answered the military’s accusation that they moved their heavy weapons near populated areas and hospitals. Diplomats and aid agencies are applying heavy pressure on both sides. The United Nations and ICRC are working hard at getting convoys to bring aid in and people out, but have been frustrated in their efforts.
The United Nations and ICRC require permission and guarantees of safe passage from both sides. The government last year ordered most aid agencies out of the war zone but has facilitated aid convoys with U.N. and ICRC help. The United Nations on Wednesday said the military stopped firing to allow a medical convoy to leave, but the Tigers then refused to let it go. [ID:nCOL285917]. Last week, the Tigers stopped U.N. local staff and their families from leaving on a convoy, which the U.N. protested as a violation of international humanitarian law.